When having to move from here to there with the distance not being practical for your own two feet to carry you, trains are a delightful alternative. More passive than piloting your own automobile through the cosmos of spacey drivers out on the endless roads, riding the train can lend some quiet meditative space. Unlike the droning, stale-aired tube that is modern air travel, one can often move more freely on a railed vessel, not to mention exit entirely. Waiting for the next stop is usually the best option for getting off, but if one simply must exit with haste – let us say due to being chased amidst intrigue, attempting survival in light of burning or exploding carriage, et cetera – the likelihood of landing in one piece is better when jumping from a train than an airplane. You are afforded the experience of sensing the progression in movement of your journey across the landscape when you ride a train as well. Underground lines can be a little noisy, crowded, and potentially stiflingly hot; but subways are often fast and convenient, being located in dense urban centers which suffuse them with practical use and influence over lifestyle and terrain, both in formation and identity.
It is certainly much easier to engage in conversation when riding on a train, as you are not focused on navigating your individual wheeled metal box. Riding trains in France brought many delightful encounters and different contexts in which to practice the language. I met a young woman who watched my friends and I play cards, claiming she had no idea what our game was, asking to have the rules explained and to be included on the next round. After a brief tutorial, this young lady was dealt a hand of cards, and she proceeded to trounce us all within a single round of cards, behaving most politely and modestly the entire time. We knew a ringer, and stopped playing. My friend met a charming music performer on one of our trips through France, and his promotional posters adorned our future apartment windows in Santa Cruz. The past few years I have celebrated the winter holiday season by splitting time between the Los Angeles and the San Diego areas, and I have been making an enjoyed and anticipated tradition of taking the train from Union Station. This past year I unexpectedly ran into one of my own ESL students from San Francisco in my compartment, and we ended up sitting in the same quadrant of seats and conversing about our travels.
Some very interesting written representations occur on trains, getting us into the field of travel narratives. Christopher Isherwood opens his novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains with the meeting between his neutral protagonist and the infamous Arthur Norris while they are sharing a compartment crossing Europe. Isherwood and his close friend and writing peer W.H. Auden, a poet, left a record of a very interesting conversation shared while riding a train. They had been commissioned to write a travelogue and journalistic account of the war between China and Japan during the 1930s, which gave us their combined work, Journey to a War. We get this image of them sharing a train journey in this excerpt:
“Thrown back upon each other’s well-worn company, we got through the long hours as we could best contrive—emptying out our heads like waste-paper baskets for the least scrap of amusement or interest. We told the old anecdotes, each secretly hoping that the other would remember or invent some new detail, however palpably untrue. We improvised parodies and limericks. We lost ourselves in interminable arguments and speculations: ‘What would happen if the world ran out of oil?’ ‘What would you describe as the unhappiest day of your life?’ ‘Does a man become a different person in a different place?”
The time and space the train travel gives us is a good time for conversation, and can yield interesting material in allowing so much space for discourse as you may only have conversation or sleep between you and a long journey. The speculations above are definitely interesting. Is it not absolutely disconcerting that a pair of intellectuals were casually discussing the ramifications of reaching peak oil in the 1930s? Are we different people when we travel? Who are we when we lose the surroundings, routine and acquiantances who help define who we are in our space? It is interesting to consider the conversation above, our own social place riding on trains contemporarily, and the potential future place of trains as we attempt to mitigate the affects of climate change, let alone game changers like peak oil.